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From Saddle Sores to Tingling Thumbs: How to Make Cycling More Comfortable

By Megan Flottorp

Riding your bike feels fantastic, right? That is – until it doesn’t. No one likes to be forced off the bike by discomfort or injury, and it can be frustrating to feel that your body is turning against you when you’re trying to do something good for it. As with most sports, though, minor cycling injuries are part and parcel of the avid rider’s relationship with their bike. Some people are more prone than others but most enthusiasts will find themselves dealing with an issue or two at some point along the line.

Thankfully, many discomforts that crop up while cycling have an easy fix. Here we will discuss some of the most common issues cyclists face and advise on how to treat and prevent them.

Cycling in Mallorca
Most enthusiasts will find themselves dealing with an issue or two at some point along the line. © Profimedia

Remember that cycling is a body-friendly sport

Before we go any further, we want to emphasise that cycling really should feel good! We do not deny that you’ll experience the sweet burn in your legs or the occasional wave of fatigue but random spasms of pain or severe discomfort should not be ignored. Unless you fall off, road cycling is a sport celebrated for its body-friendliness. The low-impact nature of riding a bike is easy on your joints and good for your heart. Proper gear, the correct bike position, and a few healthy habits off the bike can all go a long way to ensuring you can enjoy all the benefits that cycling has to offer comfortably. The tips below are here to help.

That being said, your body is a fascinating and complicated web of connections – symptoms may not represent the actual cause. If an injury is persistent, you should see a professional such as a physiotherapist or osteopath to help identify and treat the root issue.

Knee pain

Be kind to your knees. If something feels like it’s getting pulled in the wrong direction – stop what you’re doing and make some changes. When it comes to cycling, knee pain often stems from a bike fit problem. There are a few easy things to look out for.

  • Pain at the front of the knee (anterior knee pain) typically happens when the saddle is too low and thus places excess pressure on the patella.
  • Pain behind the knee (posterior knee pain), alternatively, is often caused by the saddle being too high and stretching the hamstring attachments.
  • Lateral and medial pains (pain on the side of the knee) usually arise due to incorrect cleat set-up, causing the knee to track awkwardly.

So pay attention to where your knees are asking for attention and see if these common culprits can be solved with an easy fix.

Back pain

Whether you’re an avid cyclist or not, you likely spend too much of your life hunched over. That’s why stretching your back and hips should be a vital part of every cyclist’s routine. Look into special yoga classes for cyclists and pay attention to chest-opening exercises that can help compensate for your time in the saddle.

Other key things to look at if the issue persists:

Position on and off the bike: if you ride an aggressive position with a long top tube and low handlebars, consider raising them to alleviate pressure. Likewise, if you work at a desk – you’d probably do well to invest in a chair or pillow that can help you sustain better posture throughout the day.

Core strength: be mindful that your core wraps all the way around the centre of your body and that those muscles in the front are constantly working alongside the ones in the back. If your tummy muscles aren’t pulling their load, your lower back will collapse on the bike, causing undue strain. Need the motivation to do your sit-ups? Note that working on your core strength will also make you a more powerful rider, as your legs will push the pedals from a stronger base – sounds like a good deal to me!

Wrist and forearm pain or numbness

Abide by this rule to keep your wrists and forearms happy: no locked elbows! You should always keep a slight bend in your elbows to avoid trauma when they act as your shock absorbers for all the minor bumps you encounter.

Regularly changing hand positions is also a good idea. Two common wrist overuse injuries, Cyclist’s Palsy and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, can generally be avoided by alternating the pressure from the inside to the outsides of the palms. Finally, ensure that your wrists don’t drop below the handlebars while riding.

Wrist and neck strain

It’s all connected. When it comes to avoiding discomfort in your upper body, you also need to be mindful of weight distribution. Pain from the wrists all the way to the neck can creep up when too much pressure is being transmitted through the upper body.

Ideally, about 60 per cent of your body weight while riding should be positioned at the rear of the bike, and 40 per cent at the front. If you’re leaning too heavily on the handlebars, then your arms and wrists will be forced to reckon with more than their fair share. The first thing to check is that your reach is not too long and that your handlebars aren’t too low. Padded gloves and a quick stretch of the hands and wrists before riding will also help.

Padded gloves for cycling
PEARL iZUMi Elite Gel Cycling Gloves

Foot tingling

Ah, that dreaded sensation in your foot. When you spend many hours in stiff-soled shoes and possibly only have one pair to see you through the seasons, it’s fair that your feet will act up on occasion.

One of the best ways to take care of them is to have different shoes for different seasons. Having a pair of dedicated cycling shoes to cater for summer rides when our feet swell, and winter rides when we need those layers of wool, will often solve the issue. However, you may have noted that both conditions ask for a little extra wiggle room, so if you don’t have room in the budget for both, here’s our pro tip: different brands have different defining characteristics. Shimano and Bont are known for creating wider shoes that can suit riders who experience a lot of swelling and subsequent tingling.

Saddle sores

The bane of every cyclist’s existence – saddle sores are a miserable foe to deal with. Not to mention, beyond the discomfort itself, if you start to sit lop-sided on the saddle as a result, other injuries can arise. You can read more about how to deal with saddle sores here but when it comes to prevention – it’s all about finding the right saddle and cycling shorts or pants.

First, you need to find a saddle that suits your body shape and make sure it’s set up straight. Cycling shorts, meanwhile, should fit like a glove and be accompanied by a chamois that works with your body shape, and chamois cream can be used to help reduce friction and kill off any bacteria. Finally, it’s essential to quickly change out of cycling shorts after a ride and wash them after every use.

Listen to your body

As stated at the top, no serious cry for help should go ignored. If you try any of these little tweaks and it doesn’t do the trick, you should see a doctor. Cycling has so many health benefits to offer, and the better your body feels doing it, the more often you’ll find yourself suiting up for a ride.